Books to help you work well with people

People are tricky.  We’ve got a lot of moving emotional parts, so we do well when we handle each other with care. Innocent mistakes are easily made and work can really suffer if things go wrong when we’re trying hard to get it right. The trouble is, the saying ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time’ is true.  So how best to deal with that?

I’ve spent 26 years studying people skills closely as I’ve helped people collaborate and build partnerships. This article is a quick share of some of the ‘go to’ books I recommend when coaching people in the art of leading together.  Hope you find them as useful as me.

Humankind, a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman is a valuable read because it gives clear evidence in favour of having faith in others. Bregman puts the stories of mistrust and conflict that surround us into perspective – reminding us that what we most often hear is not the norm, and that some of the most persistently quoted experiments ‘proving’ human nature is dark have in fact shown the opposite.  

A Bigger Prize: Why competition isn’t everything and how we do better by Margaret Heffernan builds on the kind view of human nature to challenge the deep rooted idea that life is a tough competition fought hard between winners and losers. She shows how working together yields much better results.

The Wisest One in the Room by Thomas Gilovich and Lee Ross offers important insights into the frailty of our thinking.  They tell engaging stories that help us understand why we don’t always get things right. It’s helpful because we can make more space to work things out if we’re more aware of our shortcomings and so more forgiving of ourselves and each other. 

The Handbook of Action Research by Peter Reason & Hilary Bradbury is great for helping deal with our fallibility. It’s a collection of brilliantly referenced articles about getting the most useful, practical learning out of everyday life. Treat ‘life as inquiry’ and you’ll find research isn’t just for academics, it’s something you can do in your own way to better understand what’s going on.

Host Leadership: 6 new roles of engagement by Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey takes a fresh look at leadership, inviting us to turn it into a dance between partners. They’ve asked searching questions about how leaders can adapt behaviours to changing situations and the result is both nourishing and refreshing.

Start with Why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action by Simon Sinek offers wise counsel to stay clear about your purpose. Whether you’re leading or not, it’s better to keep an eye on where you want to go to avoid wasting effort at a tangent.  Starting with ‘Why’ is a good discipline for helping you stay on course. 

The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry by Sue Annis Hammond is a great place to start work on the ‘How’ part of Sinek’s Why, How What.  It’s always easy to point out what’s wrong – Appreciative Inquiry makes it easier to spot what’s right. Take a peek at Jon Townsin’s animated intro here (less than 2 mins at 2x speed 🙂

If you read these, you’ll be decently equipped to work really well with people in all kinds of circumstances. But! As I said at the beginning – people are tricky.  So trouble can still brew in spite of all these brilliant insights, tools and knowledge. Which brings me to the last of my ‘go to’ recommends.  

Cash in on Conflict: Professional and Personal Success by Charlie Irvine is about homing in on different perspectives to make the most of them. There are times when collisions seem unavoidable, but it turns out some well placed affirmative disruption can change the course of events. Great lessons here about how to embrace conflict as a force for good.

As always with these kinds of lists – there’s a lot more left out than put in. If you want to dig around some of the other reference materials I’ve found useful over the past 30 years, feel free to browse the resource page of my website here.  It’s a work in progress that’s only just begun, so comments, requests and suggestions will be most welcome.

Finally, I owe a debt of thanks to Patrick J. Sauer for his excellent list of ‘books to help you lead through uncertainty’, which inspired me to write this and share it with you here.

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